A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 48: ‘How careful was I when I took my way’

A summary of Shakespeare’s 48th Sonnet

‘How careful was I when I took my way’ opens up a series of what Don Paterson calls ‘pessimistic sonnets’. From Sonnet 48 onwards, we’re in for a spate of gloomy meditations on love, as Shakespeare begins to fret over losing the Fair Youth’s affection.

How careful was I when I took my way,
Each trifle under truest bars to thrust,
That to my use it might unused stay
From hands of falsehood, in sure wards of trust!
But thou, to whom my jewels trifles are,
Most worthy comfort, now my greatest grief,
Thou best of dearest, and mine only care,
Art left the prey of every vulgar thief.
Thee have I not locked up in any chest,
Save where thou art not, though I feel thou art,
Within the gentle closure of my breast,
From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part;
And even thence thou wilt be stol’n I fear,
For truth proves thievish for a prize so dear.

First, a brief paraphrase of Sonnet 48: ‘When I went away, I was very careful to lock up everything I own, so that nobody could steal it away from me. But you – who are so precious that you make all my other possessions seem like trifling things – you, who are usually my greatest comfort, are now my biggest cause of grief, because you are in danger of being stolen away by any common thief. I haven’t locked you up in my chest – except I have in a way, since you are in my heart, though of course you’re not really there; but I feel as if you are. But you are at liberty to flee from my heart at any time, and I fear you will be stolen away from me even here, because the truth will seek to rob you from me – by making me see that my love for you is hopeless, and so should be abandoned.’

Stephen Booth notes in his indispensable edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale Nota Bene) that Sonnet 48 appears to play on two proverbial expressions: ‘Love locks no cupboards’ and ‘Love laughs at locksmiths’. Booth’s glosses on some of the other words in this sonnet are also illuminating, and neatly reveal the clever way Shakespeare writes a sonnet about both his mistrust of other people (who would seek to steal his love away from him) and, at the same time, his mistrust of the Fair Youth himself. This will be a familiar emotion to most readers: who hasn’t jealously guarded their beloved at some point, worried that someone else will whisk them away but also, on some level, nervous that their beloved will be tempted to stray from their side? The ambiguous words in the sonnet don’t begin and end with the clever pun on ‘chest’. ‘Care’ in line 7 offers a subtle example of this: the Fair Youth is Shakespeare’s ‘only care’ not only because he’s the only one he cares about, but because he is cause for concern as well as affection. There’s a creeping doubt here. But of course ‘care’ had been present in ‘careful’ in the poem’s opening line:

How careful was I when I took my way,
Each trifle under truest bars to thrust,
That to my use it might unused stay
From hands of falsehood, in sure wards of trust!

Sonnet 48 lends itself especially well to close analysis because of the way such words slip and slide, moving between indicting other people and, more quietly but nevertheless perceptibly, the Fair Youth. But the language is slipping from the start, as ‘truest’ (suggesting fidelity as well as reliability) slides into ‘trust’ but does so via the impetuous ‘thrust’. And ‘vulgar’ in the ‘vulgar thief’ of line 8 suggests not only common thieves but thieves who mix with all sorts of common people – exactly what Shakespeare is worried the Fair Youth will end up doing.

The final line of Sonnet 48 is probably the toughest to analyse. What it essentially means is that even true men will turn thief for a rich enough prize. We all have our price. But the question that lurks behind Sonnet 48, in the last analysis, is: does the Fair Youth have his price, too?

If you enjoyed this analysis of Sonnet 48, you can learn more about Shakespeare’s Sonnets here.


  1. Pingback: A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 52: ‘So am I as the rich, whose blessed key’ | Interesting Literature

  2. Jeanie Buckingham

    Oh no! Just when I thought things were looking up.

    Sent from my iPad


  3. Pingback: A Short Analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 48: ‘How careful was I when I took my way’ — Interesting Literature – ankz8

  4. I have never got on with Shakespeare but am really enjoying these articles – I think I have a new-found appreciation for the Bard!

    • Thank you, Lucy – that’s praise indeed! This series is very much a chance for me to learn more about the Sonnets and share my findings as I go. Much like your excellent series about Finnegans Wake, I found blogging was a good way to encourage me to engage with some challenging material and to communicate my ideas :)

      • I have actually started delving into my Complete Works of Shakespeare because of this blog, so the Bard owes you a great debt, I think! I’m not sure I can call myself a fan just yet, but seeing his work in a different light has certainly made me question my own perceptions of it. I can’t praise you highly enough! :)

        • That’s very kind! I think the Sonnets are a great place to start, then some of the most accessible plays – Macbeth is still a favourite, with Much Ado a very nice way into discovering the comedies. I plan to start blogging about the plays once I’ve done more of the Sonnets :)

          • Can’t beat A Midsummer Night’s Dream! I quite like The Tempest too. I look forward to the continued series on the sonnets and the plays very much so. Keep up the good work! :D